personal essay

The Many Faces of Indigenous Culture and Food

published Nov 2, 2021
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As Indigenous people, how do we define who we are? The narrative told by non-Indigenous folks often clashes with our lived experience. Simply put, there is no singular way to represent us: We are not a monolith. So trying to define the “Indigenous experience” is impossible. Take the names we go by: Indigenous, Native American, Native, First Nations, Indian (the last one based on a very bad sense of navigation). If using the right terms is difficult for non-Indigenous, imagine how confusing it is for us! Not having a sense of ownership over our own culture is a conundrum. But the one thing I think we can all agree on is that food is a universal language. When we break bread together, we can understand a bit about each other without words. Reclaiming Indigenous cuisine can be an important first step in retrieving our lost identity.

The Indigenous community is so large it could theoretically span from the top of Alaska to the very tip of Chile, but I’m focusing on the one in North America. My own Indigenous heritage hails from my mother, who was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Growing up, my mother was surrounded by a large Indigenous family, but after her mother died, she was taken from all she knew in what is known as the Sixties Scoop, a series of policies that the Canadian government enacted to separate Indigenous children from their families. The government has since offered a formal apology and later offered a class-action settlement to those affected. My mom was eventually adopted in Vermont and that’s where I grew up, far from my Indigenous heritage.

The United States is famously known as a melting pot of cuisine, but that typically refers to food brought in by immigrant populations. Indigenous cuisine is often ignored — our ingredients, recipes, and techniques credited to other cultures to make us feel like strangers on our own land. Like so many others who have been displaced, I know next to nothing about my own culture’s food traditions. The attempted eradication of our culture has been as horrific as the eradication of our people. I’m here to learn and to keep the knowledge relevant the best way I know how: by connecting those who want to share their knowledge with those who want to learn. In a country where residential schools tasked with the sole purpose of “saving the man by killing the Indian” existed until the 1990s, reclaiming our traditional foodways is radically political. In this time of cultural upheaval, a conversation about Indigenous food systems is crucial.

When we break bread together, we can understand a bit about each other without words. Reclaiming Indigenous cuisine can be an important first step in retrieving our lost identity.

Our faces have been used for centuries to sell products and as mascots for sports teams, all while so many of us have been ignored as modern people with an incredible array of cultures and traditions. From preparing moose hides in the frozen North to the chile ristras hanging in massive strips from the rafters in the Southwest, our food cultures are as diverse as the land itself.

For all the diversity in the Indigenous landscape, certain threads connect us. The Three Sisters — corn, beans, and squash — may be the most well-known of all the Indigenous foodstuffs. When eaten together, they can sustain on their own in perfect nutritional balance. On the flip side, there’s fry bread; every Indigenous person has a recipe for it. It’s filling, delicious, but nutritionally void. This post-colonial foodstuff may be a perfect metaphor for the Indigenous health crisis we’ve contended with since being stripped of our land and traditions. The lack of access to fresh, healthy food in Indigenous communities has resulted in devastating health consequences. Diabetes and heart disease are the leading cause of death in Indigenous communities, and the average life expectancy is five-and-a-half years shorter than that of the average American.  

And yet we are still here, with Indigenous folks across the continent continuing to create new traditions. Over this Indigenous Peoples’ Month, you’ll get to meet and learn more about those who are taking our culture into the present day. 

  • Kirsten Kirby-Shoote, who identifies as both queer and Indigenous, is an inspiring modern urban gardener, cultivating traditional seeds on Detroit rooftops while creating inclusive community-centered programming. 
  • Andi Murphy’s love of food and Twisted Sister led her to create the most metal of all Indigenous food podcasts, Toasted Sister. Since starting it four years ago, she has been picked up by NPR and racked up numerous awards. She’ll sit down to talk with writer Taté Walker.
  • Amber Starks will shine a spotlight on Afro-indigenous cuisine, speaking for a people taken from their land and another whose land was taken from them. 
  • Writer Luna Adler will chat with cocktail expert and founder of Doom Tiki, Chockie Tom, who uses her platform to raise up Indigenous voices from around the world and fundraises for Indigenous organizations through her cocktail events.

There is an undeniable reality hovering over the entire Indigenous population in regards to the violence against our people that’s still happening today. In the process of writing this essay, I entered a Google search. It began with “Indigenous Women”… and the first result to autofill was “Missing.” As I celebrate my community, I also want to honor. The disparity between reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls and official logged cases is staggering and I refuse to let those who have been lost be forgotten. So we seed save to honor our ancestors, we use Indigenous ingredients to nourish our communities, and we cook to honor the memories of those missing women and girls who cannot be with us. 

When we learn about our culture and share the parts that are culturally appropriate for the outside world — some traditions are sacred and not for the public — it makes us more complete. Bringing these voices together as a guest editor has been about doing my part to reclaim the past, present, and future of Indigenous cuisine. I have learned so much and I am overjoyed to share a taste of the vast tapestry of Indigenous food knowledge with all of you. I hope you will enjoy reading the compelling pieces from this month’s contributors as much as I enjoyed creating it. May this series change the way you see Indigenous foodways.